Philosophy Dispatches

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Freud's Cognitive Revolution

Freud's philosophical revolution

The received wisdom amongst scientifically-minded psychologists is that Freud is passé — a sad case of theoretical speculation gone wild. There is something right about this bleak assessment, but there is also more than a little wrong with it. Compare it with the view of Freud offered by Clark Glymour, a noted philosopher of science, in a paper entitled "Freud's androids." "Freud's writings contain a philosophy of mind," writes Glymour, "and indeed a philosophy of mind that addresses many of the issues about the mental that nowadays concern philosophers and ought to concern psychologists."

"Freud's thinking about the issues in philosophy of mind is often better than much of what goes on in contemporary philosophy, and it is sometimes ad good as the best. Some of this is dated, of course, by the limits of Freud's scientific knowledge, but even when Freud had the wrong answer to a question, or refused to give an answer, he knew what the question was. And when he was deeply wrong, it was often for reasons that still make parts of cognitive psychology wrong."

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To fully appreciate Glymour's point, one needs a detailed understanding of psychoanalytic theory, as well as more than a nodding acquaintance with the history of the sciences of the mind. I will be returning to some of these topics from time to time in future blog entries, but for now I want to concentrate Freud's philosophical importance as a critic of the conception of the human mind set out by Descartes in the 17th century, and which dominated psychological thought well into the 20th century.

The Cartesian paradigm consisted of two components: a view of the mind's relation to itself and a view of the mind's relation to the body. Descartes held that all occurrent mental states are self-intimating - that is, he thought that when a mental event is occurring, the person in whose mind the event occurs is aware that it is occurring. Put more crudely, Descartes held that we are of necessity immediately aware of our own cognitive states and processes. He also held that this self-aware mind is something distinct from the body. The mind is a non-physical thing that interacts with the physical body (a complex, flesh-and-blood machine) through the medium of the brain.

Descartes' doctrine that the mind is transparent to itself suggested that one need only introspect to acquire knowledge of one's own mental states and processes. This approach to investigating the mind became so securely entrenched that when philosophy gave birth to the science of psychology in the latter part of the 19th century, the first psychologists (men like Wilhelm Wundt, Edward Titchener, and William James) used introspection as their primary research tool. It is also true that the vast majority of psychologists and neuroscientists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were body-mind dualists who took themselves to be studying the operations of non-physical minds that were only contingently liked to the physical brains of their patients and experimental subjects (books on the history of psychology and neuroscience are often grossly misleading in this regard).

With the advances of science during the 19th century, the Cartesian paradigm came under increasing pressure. The discovery of the law of the conservation of energy, Darwin's formulation of evolutionary theory, and the discovery of regions of the brain specialized for the production and comprehension of speech, all suggested that mental states are physical states of the brain. At around the same time, the study of mental disorders and investigations of hypnosis suggested that mental states sometimes occur outside of awareness. Still, neo-Cartesianism seemed to be the only game in town.

Philosophically-minded scientists tried to evade the explanatory challenges that were posed by these developments by embracing alternative variations on the dualist theme. For example, John Hughlings Jackson, who introduced Darwinian ideas into neuroscience, tried to deal with the conflict between the Cartesian framework and empirical observations by embracing the theory that the non-physical mind and the physical brain are entirely distinct but (miraculously!) coordinated, while others were attracted to epiphenomenalism, the view promulgated by "Darwin's bulldog" Thomas Henry Huxley, that non-physical mental events are nothing but causally inefficacious effects of brain events.

These scientists were also in a quandary when it came to explaining what seemed to be unconscious mental phenomena. They needed to find some way of squaring these with the Cartesian dogma that mental states have got to be conscious. Put differently, they needed to find ways of describing their clinical observations so that they did not conflict with the deeply-held belief that there are no such things as unconscious mental phenomena.

Two strategies suggested themselves. One was to deny that the phenomena in question are really unconscious and the other was to deny that they are really mental. Those who took the first route proposed that what appear to be unconscious mental states are actually disassociated conscious states. The idea is that consciousness (which these people equated with mentality) can split apart like an amoeba, with the consequence that neither of the resulting consciousnesses has access to the other's mental states. Those who took the second route claimed that what appear to be unconscious mental states are really just neurophysiological dispositions for mental states. They are purely physical states, and therefore (on Cartesian assumptions) not mental, although their effects are similar to those produced by mental states.

During the first decade or so of his neuroscientific career, Freud was on board with the prevailing view. However, all of this changed in the spring of 1895. By this time, he had become increasingly disenchanted with the theoretical contortions required to reconcile his clinical observations with the Cartesian perspective. He realized that he needed to revise his philosophical views about the nature of the mind, and that this had to begin with a new theory of consciousness. So he cut the Gordian knot by discarding the entire Cartesian package, beginning with body-mind dualism. Freud became what is nowadays called a physicalist - that is, he came to assert (many decades before this was intellectually fashionable) that mental states are brain states. He put the point succinctly in the posthumously published Project for a Scientific Psychology, which written in 1895: "The intention is....to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction."

He also jettisoned the view that all mental phenomena are conscious. In fact, Freud argued that all cognitive processes are unconscious, and that the outputs of some of these processes are secondarily displayed in consciousness. So-called conscious thoughts are merely representations of unconscious thoughts. Along with all of this, Freud rejected the viability of introspection as an investigative method for psychology, on the grounds that if consciousness only displays the outputs of unconscious cognitive processes, then consciousness has no access to the cognitive processes responsible for these outputs.

Freud's philosophically momentous change of mind anticipated much of what occurred during the cognitive revolution of the late 20th century. And when looks at the details of Freud's theory of mental architecture, his achievement is revealed as even more impressive. But I will leave that topic for future blog postings...

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England.

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